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The Significance of the Aer Lingus Pilots’ Strike
10th June 2002
The strike by Aer Lingus pilots on Thursday 30 May over changes proposed to rostering they considered unsafe (after a 99 percent vote against the changes) and the subsequent management reaction should leave other workers in the company, and indeed elsewhere, in no doubt as to the real programme for government over the next five years. It will consist of aggressive attacks on workers rights and conditions that the organisations existing to protect them will not only fail to resist but will actually collaborate with.
The strike of pilots on Thursday was met with immediate suspension without pay of all pilots from Wednesday midnight. This led to a lockout on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday until a Labour Court ruling was accepted by the pilots and flights resumed on Tuesday 5th. The company made its determination clear when it instructed travel agents not to take any bookings even after the strike was over. As one said ‘I have never seen such callous behaviour from the management of an airline. It makes Ryanair look benevolent.’
During the last couple of years numerous groups of workers at Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport took industrial action in pursuit of pay demands and Aer Lingus cabin crew left SIPTU to join MANDATE. At the time we welcomed the action but described much of what was happening as very like shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. The critical issue facing workers was being openly discussed by both management and government, which was the whole future of the airline and its potential for privatisation in a form profitable to outside '‘investors.'’
September 11th gave the excuse for airlines across the world to attack the employment, pay and conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers. In Ireland Aer Lingus was the subject of an investigation and survival plan part-authored by Phil Flynn, the mobile strike-breaker and workers conditions buster, who learned his trade in ICTU. Having sought higher wages the issue for workers now became whether there would be any wage at all. The worker’s leaders in the trade unions offered no foresight or leadership while this was going on but went along with management and government plans. They were more interested in who was a member of what union and the collection of dues than the serious assault on conditions that was being planned.
During the pilots strike SIPTU opposed the pilots’ action while scab labour operated to try to defeat the strike. Noel Dowling, SIPTU’s national industrial secretary, tried with no success to deny the SIPTU was putting pressure on management – not in support the strike but to stiffen management resistance against it! ‘There is no tick-tacking or collusion between us and management,’ he said ‘But management is well aware of the huge disquiet among our members who are asking how come pilots, who are among the best-paid people in the airline, are not implementing new practices while we are turning ourselves inside-out to implement change.’
The tactic of SIPTU was to play on the fact that pilots are a relatively well paid group of workers to divide them from other airline and airport strike. Yet again we see another example of trade unions not so much uniting workers as being the means for union leaders to divide them. The statement by Clare Daly of the Dublin Airport Workers’ Network was correct when she said that ‘What the unions should do is protest against the attempts by management to crush the pilots which in turn will make it easier for them to put the boot into other workers and get the company ready for sale, which is just what the Government wants.’
The argument from SIPTU was that since we foisted the rotten survival plan on our members the pilots should suffer the same. Dowling argued that the pilots union ‘IMPACT are on record saying they are not opposed to privatisation. They are on record saying they were not opposed to out-sourcing jobs, and they have made no secret of their view of the world, if Aer Lingus is to be sold and taken over by another airline. Their attitude is that the company which takes over will still need cabin crew and, therefore, the pilots would simply be changing employer while the only jobs shed would be in catering, ground handling etc. In saying that, I am reflecting the concern of our members.’ Isn’t it wonderful how reactionary union leaders use other reactionary union leaders to justify more reactionary leadership!
The terms of the pilot’s deal appear from the outside to be something of fudge that will be implemented according to the future strength of the two sides, although the real importance of the dispute to management was clear. The overall terms of the survival plan could not be threatened by workers who had already swallowed it and who might be persuaded by the pilots' action to seek its review. For all its complaining we can be confident that SIPTU leaders have no intention of following the pilots’ example.
Undoubtedly more attacks on terms and conditions lie ahead as workers in airlines across the world face a race to the bottom in terms of terms and conditions. They remain, even within the one country, within one airline and airport, imprisoned in divided unions whose existence and purpose reflects more the interests of bureaucratic leaders than of the members.
An alternative to the attacks requires appreciation of this situation. It means at least a minority of workers developing political consciousness that their interests are not best served by the sectionalism that is the bedrock of trade unionism. While they must start from the unions that they are members of, they must realise that the very nature of these organisations is a weakness that must be overcome.
The old slogan of ‘with the bureaucracy when it fights, against it when it does not’ is inadequate. Even when compelled to call industrial action the leaders of the trade union movement have shown themselves adept at settling strikes on terms that betray the workers action. The task of opposing the current leadership of the trade union movement and its undemocratic structures is one that must go on especially during industrial action. It is usually only during such action that the majority of workers become actively involved in their union.
In Aer Lingus and the airline industry generally the task is to strengthen the rank and file cross-union groups that exist and find a set of policies that give a basis for their unity beyond aggregation of their sectional interests. This means devising s a workers plan for the airline industry drawn up by the workers themselves in opposition to the plans for privatisation and yellow pack airlines being planned by management and government. Aer Lingus represents the first instalment of the new programme for government. Workers should start putting together their programme for resistance.